Sunday, August 3, 2014

Book Club | Octavian Nothing

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Volume I by MT Anderson

Admittedly, I picked up this book thinking it was something completely different than I found out it was. MT Anderson wrote the middle school classic Feed, so I assumed from the ingriguingly vague jacket description that this one would similar, but in a fantasy kind of way. 

I was completely wrong, but I'm so glad I was. This book is one of the best I've read in a long time. I can't wait to read the sequel.

This is one of those books that gets under your skin in a good way, but for bad reasons. The characters became so real that I almost had a hard time distinguishing it as fictional. But that's the magic that Anderson writes--the book is set during the Revolutionary War. Somehow, I managed to find a historical fiction book (my absolute favorite genre) and I didn't even know it.


Anyway, the story follows young Octavian Gitney and his journey from adopted African boy to experimental slave in Boston during the time of the American Revolutionary War. I don't want to give too much away, since the jacket description totally didn't prepare me for any of the emotions that I experienced whilst reading this force of a book, but I will say that Anderson does a pristine job of blending historical fact with fiction. 

In fact, that was the hardest part for me to swallow, and part of the reason why I got so angry during so many parts--this book is based almost entirely on truth. Anderson weaves a tale of one fictional slave, but he uses accounts that truly happened. People were treated the way Octavian is treated in the book, and that brings some real life perspective into a young adult book that I've not experienced before. 

Plus, Anderson's prose is stunning. Absolutely. And I'm not one to say that lightly. He manages to voice Octavian the boy as well as Octavian the experiment, Octavian the rebel, and Octavian the brother and son. It's incredible what this man can do with words, both simple and obscure. And he did it all while keeping to the style of the day. That takes incredible thought and concentration, and I commend Anderson on his work. It's truly spectacular. 

The part I enjoyed most about this story is the bending of common understandings of history. Anderson writes this work in the viewpoint of a black boy raised in the comforts of a white home, and what it feels like for him to lose that privilege as well as his sense of self. Octavian knows what he wants to do, but he doesn't want to be owned by anyone. His tormentors use him as a surrogate child, but they view him as nothing more than a subject and, ultimately, a slave. 

And, probably the best part, Anderson included the controversial topic of freedom during the Revolution. It's obvious that Americans were fighting for freedom, so why did slavery still exist after the war was won? How could white men preach about freedom from an oppressive force and then turn to their slaves to ask them for tea? Anderson gives characters with varying viewpoints on this idea, all in his infallible voice. 

I have no idea how I've never come across this book before, since it combines many of the things that I love. MT Anderson did a fabulous job on this book, and I can't wait to get my hands on Volume II. If you love history, the Revolution, the varying tones of race relations during the Colonial Era, or even simply elegant prose, this book is definitely for you. Give it more of a chance than the synopsis demands--it's beyond worth it. 

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